Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The best book I should have read in 2006: A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

We all have to-read lists. Mine...if I piled all the books on top of each other it would probably stretch to the moon. But I was able to knock one off The List last week: A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz, who won the 2008 Newbery Award for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

I admit that until last week A Drowned Maiden's Hair was nowhere near the top of my to-read list. I'd heard good things about it, sure, and it generated a lot of buzz on Adbooks, but I had other books I wanted to read first. Then I attended a meeting for the Garden State Teen Book Awards last week at which my friends Liz and Sophie gave such wonderful, impassioned booktalks that I went home and borrowed the book that evening.

Why oh why did I wait so long?

A Drowned Maiden's Hair looks imposing when you pick it up. It's enormous and clearly historical fiction and for those of us who aren't good at history by any stretch of the imagination, it's not really one of those books that makes us think MUST READ THIS NOW. But once you open it, you won't put it down. It's fast-paced and the language and characters are nothing short of brilliant.

The premise: Maud Mary Flynn, age eleven, lives at the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans. She isn't the prettiest or the nicest girl in her class, but she is clever and she likes to make a little trouble every now and again. When the book opens, Maud is singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in one of the school's outhouses in order to keep up her spirits. She knows that at least one of her fellow orphans will be adopted today. At eleven, and not outstandingly pretty, Maud knows her own chances of adoption are slim. Her singing attracts one of the women who have come to adopt a little girl, though, and she ends up going to live with the Hawthorne sisters: businesslike Judith, charismatic Hyacinth, and straitlaced Victoria. With the Hawthornes, Maud wants for little. She has nice dresses, a room of her own, and modern Victorian amenities. But all is not perfect. She has to hide upstairs if a visitor comes, and she cannot go to school. She is a secret child.

What's the secret? The Hawthorne sisters make their living by doing seances, and they're complete frauds. Maud is their key to getting Mrs. Lambert, a wealthy woman with a dead daughter, to pay them enough so they can get out of debt. Maud is going to pose as the deceased Caroline and satisfy all the spiritual (as in ghosts, not religion) wants of her grieving mother.

What's the problem? Maud is too smart and too wanting of freedom to blithely follow all the Hawthorne sisters' rules.

Why you'll love it: First, Schlitz can do descriptions like no one out there. So many authors go overboard and bog their stories down with descriptors. Schlitz achieves the perfect balance of giving the reader a clear view of the setting but letting it shape rather than interrupt the story. Second, the characters fit well into a melodrama but are also very human and believable. Hyacinth is Dolores Umbridge for historical fiction, sweetness and light outside but give her enough time and she'll show her true nature. The bond Maud develops with the Hawthornes' housekeeper, Muffet, is inspiring. This is 400 pages that feels like 200, with a wide range of both love and cruelty. Moral ambiguity is the driving force, raising questions about other people's happiness and what you have to do to survive.

Move this one to the top of your to-read list. It will make you shiver, gasp, and laugh all at once.

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